A Note on Rigour

As the comments of Ed’s piece are getting pretty crowded at this point, I thought it would best facilitate conversation if I wrote a whole short post on the topic of rigour. I reproduce those comments of Ed to which most directly respond:

You see, Alec, we’re using rigour in different ways; you specifically to refer to Analytic forms of argument, me to refer to arguments which seem to me to get closest to the truth of the matter. And both our uses are vague/ambiguous, insofar as mine is never going to rule out the potential validity of analytic methods, and yours can’t limit itself to analytic methods unless it wants to become completely vacuous (I.e. Saying nothing more than Analytic!)

a practise is rigorous if it is consistent in its application of principles, is self-critical of the content of its principles, and/or is responsive to the nature of the subject matter at hand when deciding how to apply those principles.

Now I don’t think I’m risking vacuity, because my accounts of ‘rigour’ and ‘analytic’ are independent.

I say that analytic work is work that is situated within a particular tradition, or network of influence, as I put it: one that derives from Frege. Following Bill’s suggestion, I might write another post devoted to the analytic intellectual tradition and what it means to be a member of it, but for now I want to concentrate on rigour.

I say that rigorous work is work that makes it as easy as possible for one’s opponents to disagree with you, ie, by making your main claim and your supporting arguments explicit.

Rigorous work need not be analytic, and analytic work need not be rigorous: indeed, the whole thrust of the Williamson piece (‘Must Do Better’, the afterword to The Philosophy of Philosophy) on which I rely here is that much analytic philosophy is not nearly rigorous enough. Nonetheless, one of the distinguishing features of the analytic tradition has been its commitment to standards of rigour, at least as an ideal, and Williamson has a phenomenally high bar for what counts as ‘rigorous enough’ (I know, I’ve been in his classes!).

So what’s so great about rigour, as I understand it? Well, the more rigorously some theory is articulated, the easier it is to assess that theory. You can work your way through premiss by premiss, asking whether this claim is true, whether that inference is valid. There is no where for mistakes to hide. Thus there is a strong likelihood that critical eyes will uncover those mistakes.

Of course, philosophy and theology remain extremely difficult, however explicitly work in these areas is written. That’s why we should do all we can to make the process easier. One way to do just that is to write rigorously.


2 thoughts on “A Note on Rigour

  1. A longer post on what it means to be a member of the Analytic tradition would be extremely good to read! As the for the rest, can’t disagree with much here. Will just say that, as you note, you don’t have to use analytic tricks to be rigorous as you describe it here (which I like). I also think it’s worth bearing in mind the possibility that no amount of rigour will entail that there is nowhere for mistakes to hide! (After all, they might be hiding in the particular application of the method…).


  2. This is a nice post. I also think apost on what it means to be part of the analytic tradition will be useful and interesting. I look forward to reading it.


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